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Belt-tightening at NATO

June 10, 2010

It's not just national governments that need to save money these days, but also international organizations like NATO. Defense ministers from the 28 members of the military alliance are looking for ways to cut costs.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen with the NATO flag
Rasmussen: NATO must cut fat but not muscle from its budgetImage: AP

NATO's entire military and administrative budget is two billion euros ($2.4 billion). Most NATO governments say this is too much. They are not immune to the financial crisis or the rising cost of the alliance's largest mission in Afghanistan.

Germany's defense minister, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, is already planning a radical overhaul of his country's armed forces. That overhaul might even include putting an end to military conscription. But the NATO organization itself has to make changes too, according to Guttenberg's deputy, Christian Schmidt.

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg
Guttenberg wants to shorten the mandatory military service for German menImage: AP

"We have to save on all levels including the NATO level and spend in a careful and targeted way. There are clearly areas where we can economize," he told journalists at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Thursday.

He and most of the representatives at the meeting are not interested in saving money on the battlefield. Troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere are already suffering from serious shortfalls. But in the opinion of many critics, NATO's administrative structure is grossly inflated. Or, as NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen put it, too fat.

"We must cut fat and not muscle," he said. "While seeking savings we must nevertheless preserve our ability to deter attacks against us and to carry out essential operations."

Office jobs and missile defense in the crosshairs

By "fat" Rasmussen means administration. There is talk of reducing the number of commanders from 13,500 to a maximum of 9,500. An even more radical suggestion is to close down six of the 11 current headquarters or to cut 11 of its 14 defense agencies. Such cuts would be unpopular with countries that would lose such installations. A final decision won't be made until the next summit this fall.

The ongoing discussion about missile defense has now taken on an economic thrust. The old plans for an anti-missile system from the administration of former US President George W. Bush have been buried by his successor, Barrack Obama, not least due to Russian resistance. Now NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is picking the issue up again.

"It is technically feasible to expand the system NATO is already developing, to protect our troops so that it also protects our populations and territory," he said. "The extra costs are manageable, less than 200 million euros over 10 years spread among 28 allies."

But that figure does not include the combined national contributions, which would run into billions of euros. The cost is at the forefront of discussions, a fairly new experience for NATO. During the Cold War, defense ministers were accustomed to getting the money they asked for. A decision on missile defense is also expected at the fall meeting.

One expensive, non-military project has sidestepped the budget cuts talk: the construction of a new NATO headquarters. The cost is estimated at 1.5 billion euros.

Author: Christoph Hasselbach (hf)
Editor: Chuck Penfold